By Mitchell Clute
In colonial times, centuries before artificially flavored soft drinks were our bubbly refresher of choice, another beverage ruled the roost: the shrub. Martha Washington had her own recipe. Ben Franklin too—though his contained a healthy dose of rum.
Light, bright, complex and flavorful, shrubs offered the cooks of yore a way to capture the flavors of summer and keep them through the darkest days of winter. And though the name is arcane, the process is simple, requiring just three ingredients—sugar, fruit and vinegar—to create a near-perfect refreshment. Wait, you ask, vinegar? Yes, vinegar. It’s key, because it preserves the whole mixture while adding a tartness to balance the sugar’s sweetness. The result is vaguely kombucha-like, but more fruit-forward and a lot less hassle to make at home.
What’s In a Name?
We’ll get to the recipe. But first, a little history. The word “shrub” first appeared in English back in 1747, but the drink’s origins are older—and murkier—than that. The word derives not from shrubbery, but from the Arabic sharab, meaning syrup, and the Hindi sharbat, from which the English “sherbet” is also descended. They began as non-alcoholic libations, and later were used to mask the saltwater flavor of rum and gin brought to English shores by smugglers in the eighteenth century.
And though shrubs today can add depth of flavor to mixed drinks, I enjoy them most over ice with a splash of sparkling water, where their flavors can take center stage. When fresh, the tang of vinegar shines brightly, but as they mellow in the fridge, the result is a deeper, subtler flavor. To learn more about their history and explore flavor combinations, I highly recommend Michael Dietsch’s book Shrubs: An Old- Fashioned Drink for Modern Times.
A Starter Recipe to Get You Shrubbing
Let’s start cooking. Well, macerating, anyway. Though shrubs can be simmered for quicker results, I prefer the fresh fruit flavors that are retained through the cold prep method. Besides the basic ingredients, all you’ll need is a clean container, a glass jar for the finished product, a mesh strainer and a funnel.
Basic Raspberry Shrub Recipe
2 cups fresh or frozen raspberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup cider vinegar
Add the sugar to the fruit and gently stir to mix together. Place the container in the fridge. As the fruit macerates, it will give up its juices. After 24 to 72 hours, strain off the resulting syrup through a sieve or cheesecloth, mix in a cup of vinegar, and bottle. Your shrub will keep refrigerated for up to three months, though the flavors will continue to evolve.
The good news is it’s hard to get wrong! The process is simple and forgiving. Try strawberries, peaches or any in-season fruit, and feel free to substitute white wine or red wine vinegar for the cider vinegar. Each yields a unique flavor. It’s easy to add in herbs and spices as well; I’ve had luck with mint, cinnamon and even lavender.
When your shrub is ready, fill a glass with ice, mix with seltzer to taste, and enjoy the same delicious libation our Founding Fathers enjoyed. Cheers!